x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Putin turns on the charm in Israel

Russian president begins tour that seems designed to spin his country's regional policies.

Russian president Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the ceremony to unveil the new ‘Victory Monument’ in the Mediterranean city of Netanya, north of Israel.
Russian president Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the ceremony to unveil the new ‘Victory Monument’ in the Mediterranean city of Netanya, north of Israel.

JERUSALEM // Unveiling a memorial to Soviet soldiers of the Second World War in Israel yesterday, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, began a tour that seems designed to spin his country's regional policies.

Moscow has received a public relations battering for its support of Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, as his forces try to crush a rebellion that has claimed as estimated 14,000 lives, most of them civilians, according to rights groups and activists.

Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, are also frustrated with Russia's ties to Iran. Mr Netanyahu was expected to ask Mr Putin to put pressure on Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

But the Russian leader seemingly has little time for the finer details of foreign policy during his whirlwind visit, his first here in seven years.

Before he leaves the region on Tuesday, he also will attend a state dinner in the Israeli president's residence, meet the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and finally with King Abdullah of Jordan.

Analysts say Mr Putin's visit is unlikely to result in any significant policy changes in the region.

"Russia's leaders see the Arab Spring as a largely negative development, and they need to explain themselves better to governments in the region that share their uneasiness but disapprove of Russian policy," said Stephen Sestanovich, a fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"Moscow's support for the Assad regime in Syria has excited animosity throughout the region," he said. In February, Russia and China angered many when they vetoed a UN Security Council resolution critical of the Syrian regime's crackdown. The measure also called on Mr Al Assad to step down.

But analysts said Mr Putin has few choices other than maintaining ties to its chief regional allies, Syria and Iran. They are Russia's last toeholds in the Middle East.

Syria, an important buyer of arms from Moscow, hosts Russia's only warm-water port outside the former USSR. Tehran's nuclear programme, on the other hand, offers the Kremlin leverage over Washington and its allies.

In Amman, Mr Putin and King Abdullah were expected to discuss Iran and the Israel-Palestinian issue. The Jordanian monarch, a staunch ally of the United States, has come out against Mr Al Assad and would press the Russian leader on both Syria and Iran, said an adviser.

Still, expectations were low. "We welcome the visit, but there's no belief that Russia's regional role will change," said the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Labib Kamhawi, an independent, Jordan-based analyst, said Mr Putin primarily sees his regional tour as a bid to "shore up support back home" where opposition to his rule has grown. Today, he will open a pilgrim guesthouse for Russian Christians in the Jordan Valley.

Russia forms part of the so-called Mideast peace quartet, which also consists of the US, European Union and UN. But Israel-Palestinian peace issues "were very secondary" to Mr Putin's agenda, Mr Kamhawi said.

Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, agreed. Moreover, he said Israeli leaders were bent on pushing the Iranian-nuclear issue. "It's an opportunity to try to convince Russia to change its policies, but there's a lot of scepticism among Israeli leaders, even though they consider the visit important," he said.

Among high-ranking Israeli officials, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's Soviet-born, Russian-speaking foreign minister, is the most enthusiastic about Mr Putin's visit.

A staunch supporter of Moscow, he chairs a special committee he formed that aims to improve business, diplomatic and cultural relations between the countries.

Gideon Rahat, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the foreign minister sees Moscow as a hedge against Washington's overwhelming influence on Israeli affairs.

"He wants to move closer to Russia to make Israel less dependent on the US," he said.

Mr Lieberman was the first Israeli official to greet Mr Putin at the airport yesterday.

Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Centre, believes relations between the nations can improve. Mr Putin is perhaps "Russia's most pro-Israeli leader ever", he said.

The two countries also share many cultural similarities, primarily because of the more than one million immigrants who have moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War.

"Of all the countries in the region, Israel is the closest to Russia in terms of its economy and culture," he said.

But perhaps Russia's biggest asset is presenting a potential diplomatic alternative to Europe, where Israel's reputation has plummeted in recent years because of its policies toward the Palestinians.

"If anything," Mr Trenin added, "Russia may have replaced some European countries that have now turned against Israel on a number of issues, especially when you look at critical public opinion in these countries."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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